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The Last of Us: Naughty Dog owns stealth survival horror

Monday, 4th February 2013 08:06 GMT By Phil Owen

The Last of Us has finally appeared in playable form. What exactly is it? Is it any good? Phil Owen has pleasing answers both these questions.

Naughty Dog’s Latest

The Last of Us is the first new property from Naughty Dog since Uncharted, and the first it has had in active rotation while the previous franchise is yet to be retired.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world characterised by zombie-like victims of a fungal plague. Other survivors are perhaps a worse threat.

An E3 2012 demo of the PlayStation 3 exclusive was well-received but shocked some viewers with its raw, confronting violence.

A release date of May 7 has been confirmed.

For the first time last week, Naughty Dog gave us the chance to get our hands on The Last of Us and see exactly what kind of game we will be getting in May. We’ve seen hands-off demos before, but watching does not at all match the experience of playing it for ourselves. I can attest that seeing someone who is intimately familiar with how the game works play it will not adequately prepare you for facing the horrors of The Last of Us.

Before we played, creative director Neil Druckmann gave us some background on the section we would see, which takes place relatively early in the game. Hero Joel and his friend Tess live in a quarantine zone in Boston twenty years after a fungal infection ripped the United States apart. They are smugglers who bring things into and out of the zone, and they are tasked with taking a girl named Ellie out from this safe area to a group of men they will meet at the state capitol building some ways away.

The demo picked up as the three are making their way through the city, which is completely mucked up, as the military had dropped bombs on the city to try to contain the zombie-like infection. The early part of this journey involves a lot of climbing over and under things as rain falls on our protagonists’ heads. Eventually, we enter a skyscraper that no long stands up straight, and the experience of exploring it is a bit disorienting.

But, of course, The Last of Us is about more than just walking around. After a while, Joel, Tess and Ellie encounter some of the infected denizens of the city, whom they must take down.

Combat in The Last of Us is stealth oriented, but Naughty Dog have created combat systems that are unique. There are three stages of the fungal infection, and in the demo we faced two of them, the Runners (stage one) and the Clickers (stage three). The important thing to remember about these enemies is that Runners can’t see too well, and so their vision is based on movement, like a tyrannosaur, and the Clickers can’t see at all and must use echolocation in order to get around.

If you try to approach The Last of Us the way you would any other stealth game, like I did, you will be beating your head against a wall.

So if you try to approach The Last of Us the way you would any other stealth game, like I did, you will be beating your head against a wall. In the first serious encounter with these enemies — an area that contained five or six Runners and one Clicker, I died over and over again without making significant headway. I became immensely frustrated, and I started to worry that the game might be unbalanced and far too difficult.

Thankfully, though, a Naughty Dog staffer had been watching me play, and he pointed out to me that I can walk right up to a Clicker without him noticing me if he’s not making noises. This was an important note, because Clickers are horrifying once they hear you — when a Clicker detects you and gets within arm’s reach, he will one-hit kill you. Meanwhile, you can brawl with the Runners, and so once the Clicker was dealt with I was able to take down the other enemies efficiently with my lead pipe.

I should note that the learning curve was high because I was playing a section in the middle of the game that takes place after the tutorial sections that we must assume exist, given Naughty Dog’s development history this generation. Players coming into the full game will likely have a better grasp of how the stealth combat works at this point in the game than I did.

Indeed, there was another section later in the demo in which you must face off with an additional bunched collection of enemies, this one containing half a dozen Clickers and a couple Runners. Now that I had a handle on how to play the game, I was able to pass through that section without serious frustration. Yes, I still died a few times, but I felt like I was making progress with each attempt. It did not feel overwhelming.

Special editions

The Last of Us has spawned dour special editions, complete with DLC and collectibles.

In Europe, collectors can choose between the Joel and Ellie packages.

While US denizens take their pick from the Survival and Post-Pandemic bundles.

By that point, too, I had learned the value of crafting, which is a necessity in surviving The Last of Us. As you explore, you’ll collect a variety of seeming pointless items like scissors and tape and glass bottles. With the crafting system Naughty Dog has built, you will use those items to put together useful things like Molotov cocktails and shivs, and they also allow you to upgrade our weapons. A pipe is nice on its own, as it will allow you to take down a Runner twice as quickly as if you are just using your fists, but if you combine your pipe with blades from scissors, you can kill them with one hit. Upgrading will also allow your improvised weapons to last longer, as they can only stand a limited number of hits before breaking.

As a stealth game, The Last of Us is also unique in that the player character, Joel, is not alone in his adventures. Indeed, in the demo I played, he is accompanied by two other people. In the first major combat section, Tess and Ellie stayed back while I cleared the room, but in the next one they followed me around as I tried to quietly take down enemies. As I played, I could not tell if in those situations that stealth was broken if it was me or my companions who did it, but what I found most interesting is that they would notice that stealth was broken before I did. On those occasions, I would realize I had alerted more enemies when Tess opened fire. The AI seemes effective at helping out when this happens; Tess even took out a Clicker once all on her own.

Given that having companions follow you around in a stealth game is a new wrinkle for the genre, I couldn’t help but ask Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells about why they chose to go that route and how it works from a technical standpoint.

“It’s a struggle,” he told me, “but it’s so important for us to tell the story to have- well, the story is entirely around Joel and Ellie. When we set out to make this game, we knew that was a challenge that we had to tackle. The rewards are huge, because you can tell a much better story when you have other characters to play off of, so you’re not just having an inner monologue or talking to yourself. To have that dynamic and build that bond between characters across the course of an entire game is really interesting to us.”

In terms of building a game with a stealth system that needs to account for multiple protagonists presented Naughty Dog with serious obstacles that needed to be addressed, and Wells discussed those with me.

A lot of work goes into The Last Of Us’s cutscenes,
which so far look just as good – if not better – than
the Uncharted franchise’s.

“Do you ever allow your companion to break stealth?” Wells commented.

“If you’re staying hidden, will the player feel completely cheated if, for reasons they’re not responsible for, stealth is broken? We thought yes, that is the case, and so now we have to make sure that somehow we keep the allied NPC out of the line of sight of our enemies. It took a huge AI challenge to– it sort of works both ways: they have to be smart about where the enemies are, but the enemies have to be smart about where the allied NPC is, and we make sure that they will intentionally not look in their direction if they happen to be exposed at the right time. It’s kind of a give and take.”

So Wells put to rest my fear that Ellie or Tess could be a liability, and he also noted that they can be quite handy in a fight, as I mentioned above. Joel’s lady friends are quite dangerous when they need to be.

“Although we had all those challenges in trying to figure out how to deal with the stealth game,” Wells remarked, “now you reap all those rewards when you have an ally when combat opens up — you all of a sudden think [Ellie is] the coolest person ever when she can rescue you.”

Due to the stealthy nature of the game, you won’t find the kind of epic set pieces we’ve come to expect from Naughty Dog thanks to what they’ve done with the Uncharted series. It’s just not that kind of game, as you might have realized from my descriptions of the gameplay above. But they did design the game with a similar philosophy to their other current generation games in that they have had some idea of the type of sensory experience they wanted to craft before building the story.

“You develop the story, and that will bring to light some moments in the game that really create some awesome gameplay,” Wells told me.

“Sometimes, it’s the story that drives us to say, ‘OK, we need to create this environment and this kind of gameplay,’ and other times it’s like, ‘OK, is is the experience we want to create — how do we get the story to pass rough that?’”

“You’ll have an idea, for instance, we just thought it would be really cool to have an environment where you’re going through a subway that’s been flooded out, and you’re in a building that is completely collapsed in on itself, and so you’ve got this familiar environment that people might go through on their daily commutes, but it’s completely turned on its head and becomes unfamiliar because you’ve got these creatures dwelling in it and it’s been neglected for twenty years and you can see what nature has done to it.

“That was just a moment we wanted to experience. We wanted to see what it would be like to go through a creepy environment like that in the dark, with this antagonism on you. So, then, you just feed that into the story — well, how do you get them into that scenario?”

Wells summed up the whole design philosophy as so: “Sometimes, it’s the story that drives us to say, ‘OK, we need to create this environment and this kind of gameplay,’ and other times it’s like, ‘OK, is is the experience we want to create — how do we get the story to pass rough that?’”

From what I played of The Last of Us, I feel as if that philosophy is working, but only the full game will be able to tell us if that feeling is accurate. You’ll be able to pick up Naughty Dog’s latest and decide for yourself on May 7 in both North America and Europe.

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25 Comments

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  1. Mike W

    My God, I haven’t been to forest hills in years, I wonder does it look like that? (I’m from Boston people) ;)

    Staying on topic, this game is going to be nuts.

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    Must-buy. Can’t wait.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. Dragon246

    First game that I will play till completion on consoles this year. Probably the strongest contender for GOTY for me along with GTA5 and GOW.
    This just sounds more awesome the more I hear about it.
    This game also shows how things like crafting etc. doesn’t really require a second screen to be effective, judging from the previews.
    @Phil,
    Are clickers stage 2 or 3? IGN reports them as stage 2. Are you sure that they are stage 3?
    Also, did sony release any sort of videos to accompany this reveal. I would have LOVED to see the beautiful graphics again.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Telepathic.Geometry

    Hi Phil Owen, I’m an annoying grammar nazi who points out insignificant typos: “answers TO both these questions” Now, I’m gonna read this article. I’ve been looking forward to The Last of Us for a while now, seems like it might be The Walking Dead meets Uncharted. Sorry for being a pain…

    #4 1 year ago
  5. chaoszage

    Game Title should be Silent Hill:Last of Us :P

    #5 1 year ago
  6. KAP

    I love that this is completely different to uncharted. Less about set pieces more about tention. This is what we all have been hungry for since resi evil turned into gears of war.

    Glad to see the video on IGN of the gameplay, looked so tense…. wow.

    #6 1 year ago
  7. Get_crazy

    If you want to see new gameplay footage with those clickers (it’s stage 3, stage 2, as I understood, is a transition between runners and clickers but ND didn’t want to share any further at the moment). Anyway, there goes the new gameplay footage:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6jIK_cHF5c

    #7 1 year ago
  8. DrDamn

    Really looking forward to this one too.

    @3
    Plenty of games have effective crafting systems, but it’s not simply about being effective. It’s about this sort of thing being enhanced by a second screen.

    #8 1 year ago
  9. manamana

    Pre-order is already out but damn, that sounds and looks right up my alley. The video is just what I hoped it would be like. Great stuff coming!

    #9 1 year ago
  10. daytripper

    They have nailed the atmosphere, the clickers create tension knowing one screw up and it’s game over. Day one

    #10 1 year ago
  11. Dragon246

    @8,
    Its personal choice then, I believe second screen adds nothing in this regard. You believe otherwise.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. polygem

    i am looking forward to this as well…@Get_crazy: thanks for the link, haven´t seen that footage yet. intense stuff.
    it really looks great. i was disapointed with zombiu. not that it´s a bad game but i just cannot get into it somehow. i crave a creepy, intense and atmospheric game with an immersive story. here it comes i hope.

    @dragon: a second screen would enhance these kind of games for sure…let´s see what you think about that when sony goes that road ;)

    #12 1 year ago
  13. lexph3re

    This year is such a great year of gaming to me. I choose not to look at ALL of my must haves this year so I don’t spoil my urge to play them. Dead Space 3 comes out tomorrow and all I watched was the very first trailer and the kinect trailer. I just don’t want to feel like I played the game before actually playing it anymore. A lot of experiences were ruined because of that for me.

    This game looks bloody epic and so does Ascension. Such a great year for gaming for me

    #13 1 year ago
  14. Erthazus

    They don’t own it. Pat.

    You never played Metro 2033 or Amnesia: The dark Descent. Just try out Metro: The Last Light this year at least or Amnesia: Machine for Pigs.

    I want the game and will probably try it but I don’t see a single thing that said it is a horror. So far it was a survival action game.

    The biggest thing about this game is that it has inventory and you can actually Craft things. Shooting mechanics were nice, animations, graphics (for a console that is limited as F.) but at the same time everything what I saw was SCRIPTED.

    If it is Scripted it will be easy as hell.

    P.S. this game would be much better next gen. It looks just meh in 2013 already. Look at any PC multiplatform these days with Anti-Aliasing and tesselation. Look at the Crysis 3 PC videos where everything looks sharp and then look at the TLOU screens. ND is very talented studio, but PS3 limited their ability to do things better.

    #14 1 year ago
  15. DrDamn

    @11
    Of course it comes down to personal opinion, but when presented with some valid points do you have anything to counter them with other than “No, I don’t think so”.

    For example a touch screen is quicker and easier to use to select and manage inventory as you might need in a crafting system. That’s a fairly reasonable assertion that most people would agree with. A d-pad controller cursor selection method is a work around, functional, but a work around.

    Or in a survival horror game making the player look away from the screen at the pad to perform certain actions also helps with atmosphere as it re-enforces the actions the character is doing. I.e. taking their attention away from what is around them and putting their focus elsewhere.

    These are enhancements. Not something which makes these things possible, but which enhances the functionality.

    #15 1 year ago
  16. Dragon246

    @15,
    There is a 4th wall, I am not Joel. I want to see him doing those things, and I certainly know the backpack is behind me, and its not a touchscreen. And I certainly want to marvel at screen during these times.
    Again, this is not a survival horror game, at least devs don’t believe it so. Its just so good that it transcends multiple genres.
    Its a perfectly good method to do stuff like crafting without needing an extra peripheral.
    These are also valid points/opinions, and I am not forcing it on anyone.

    #16 1 year ago
  17. DrDamn

    @16
    “Its a perfectly good method to do stuff like crafting without needing an extra peripheral.”

    That’s not the point though. No one is saying you can’t do it without it, no one is saying it’s needed for these things. We are just saying a second touch screen can enhance these things.

    #17 1 year ago
  18. Dragon246

    @17,
    And I don’t see any enhancements. I listed my reasons, feel free to disagree.
    Move is supposedly the best motion controller from FPSes (ask Ken or Guerrilla), do I agree, no. I don’t like Duck Hunt style shooting. Keyboard and Mouse are the best controllers for fpses. Just sayin’

    #18 1 year ago
  19. Kabby

    Oh, zombies.

    #19 1 year ago
  20. killersense

    man survival horror isn’t my cup of tea :( but i love naughty dog games especially uncharted and the way they tell a story so i am definitely gonna pick this up. worse case scenario is i probably put this is on easy just to run through and experience the story.

    #20 1 year ago
  21. PEYJ

    For me most emotional games are about the immersion with the environment and the characters, not the technology. Having a second screen prevents 100 % focus from the story and its players and instead provides you with another tool/toy. Fair enough if people like that but a game like is not for that.

    I tried ZombieU (NOT to be compaired to The Last of Us) and ultimately I found the second screen use annoying. However, thats a question of taste looking at how the game is presented and how little the story means.

    #21 1 year ago
  22. nhowell14

    This game is terrifying, simply because it’s actually plausible….

    This game could very easily be the new Resident Evil / I Am Legend fix I’ve been absolutely craving for. Thankfully it’s an exclusive PS3 game, that way it’ll be worth the time to play. No more cross-plat titles for me. They just never seem to hold up to what Sony’s first party studios put out.

    #22 1 year ago
  23. Erthazus

    ^ I hope this game will be a new Resident Evil in both sales and metacritic.

    I so hope for that. crapcom should just go away with their stupid reboots.

    #23 1 year ago
  24. Dragon246

    @PEYJ,
    +1

    #24 1 year ago
  25. Telepathic.Geometry

    Yay, Peyj is back! ^-^

    #25 1 year ago